The morning quiet of a side street near the center of a village in Austria was interrupted on 23 Elul (Sept. 23) by the shrill blast from a ram’s horn. Tense with anticipation, I ended up blowing the shofar in its higher, more desperate register. Tekiah, teruah, shevarim, tekiah gedolah, I sounded the series. From me, it was a plangent summons and a cry of repentance and atonement. It is the fulfillment of a personal promise, a long pilgrimage to the birthplace of some of my ancestors.
The ground on which my wife and I stand was once a synagogue, the spiritual heart of a community of Jews who had lived in the town of Frauenkirchen for nearly 300 years after being expelled from Vienna. They first settled here in the 17th century at the invitation of Prince Paul Esterházy, who placed them under letters of protection as he did Jews in each of seven villages in the northern half of Burgenland, along the border bridging Hungary. Perhaps he was motivated by some sense of justice or generosity, but we know he also had hopes that the enterprising Jews would help invigorate the town and enhance it as a destination for pilgrims drawn to the magnificent twin-spired Catholic Basilica facing the town square.
Jews were not entirely strangers to this table-flat region of vineyards and farmlands. A small gold amulet engraved with the Shema was found by archeologists in 2008 outside the nearby village of Halbturn, attesting to a Jewish presence at least as early as the third century. That presence ended abruptly in 1938, when Nazi Germany annexed Austria and synagogues around the country were destroyed.
Today, where once stood a synagogue that at one point served a community of nearly 900 Jews – almost a third of the village population – stands only the Garten der Erinnerung, the small memorial garden in which we prayed and I blew the shofar.
That quiet space, wedged between commercial buildings and facing a parking lot, is commanded by a dramatic bronze sculpture by Viennese artist Dvora Barzilai representing a Torah scroll on a cube of local stone.
Atop the base, we found an array of a few dozen pebbles, in every shade and shape, each having been carefully placed by some earlier visitor, a longstanding custom among Jews visiting a gravesite. This is the burial place of a synagogue. To the collection of small stones atop the sculpture, we add two more, ones that have traveled all the way from Gloucester, collected at Pavilion Beach by Rabbi Steven Lewis of Temple Ahavat Achim and given to us before the trip.
Inside a glass-walled enclosure in the far corner of the site, there are fragments of the original foundation of the synagogue exposed by an archeological dig. On the adjacent wall are the names of the last families of the congregation whose fates were sealed after the Nazi invasion. At our feet, in front of the names, are a few stones recovered from the original floor of the temple, including a compass rose. Facing Jerusalem to the east, I finish my prayers.
Upon first reaching the Garten der Errinerung, I said the Baruch dayan ha-emet, the blessing of death. It was the second time on this trip. This time was planned; the first, a few days earlier in Vienna, was unexpected.
I was in Austria in part for a conference at the Vienna University of Technology, but my journey had begun more than 15 years earlier when I started researching the murky traces of my own family roots. That research eventually resulted in a novel, my first work of historical fiction, “Distant Sons,” a story of immigrants from Burgenland and of interfaith connection and conflict.
Research for the novel led me to the work of professor Bob Martens at the technical university. Since 1998, Martens had been supervising architecture students in creating computer-based digital models of the lost synagogues of Austria. These virtual reconstructions, based on photographs, historical documents, and meticulous archival research, make it possible to see what the synagogues were like from every angle and from inside and out. This work, culminating in digital realizations of all 68 of the lost synagogues of Austria, is now on display at the Vienna Jewish Museum.
There, I learned the museum had a second site, located at Judenplatz, the Jewish Square. Where once stood the synagogue of the Jewish quarter of 17th-century Vienna, now stands an impressive and imposing Holocaust memorial. Beneath the monument lies the museum annex, including a tunnel leading to the original archeological dig that unearthed the remnants of the synagogue destroyed in 1421.
Deep underground, beneath the streets of modern Vienna, my wife and I entered another world, one demarcated by the low remains of the stone walls of the synagogue. In the cool hush, I prayed and was moved to tears. The Jews of Burgenland had come from Vienna. This synagogue and the one in Frauenkirchen are connected, as are we with other Jews, as are we with the past, even when it is lost.
Larry Constantine is a freelance journalist and author of 12 novels, including “Distant Sons,” which begins in Burgenland and ends in America.